The guesthouse where we stayed in Afghanistan last fall was attacked on Thursday by Taliban, who killed 16 people, including Indian doctors and other foreigners working on humanitarian projects.
The insurgents set off a car bomb, then a suicide bomber detonated himself and the insurgents stormed the Park Residence where I’d stayed with 8 members of a women’s peace delegation organized by Code Pink. (Click here for report on that trip) I was on a plane to Hawaii for a writing retreat when this happened, and on hearing the news I went into shock.
There but for fortune…
Faces flashed through my mind: the stooped Afghan lady who cleaned my room, the porter, the desk clerks and the foreigners we met in the dinning room. The guesthouse was modest and shabby by Western standards, but our guide had chosen it because he thought it was “safe,” unlike the fancier hotels where journalists and diplomats stay.
I felt, with renewed force, the anguish that Afghans live with every day, and found it difficult to enjoy the 80 degree sunshine and luxuriant waves, sand and tropical flowers. Why had it been their time and not mine? Why would this war never cease, and even if it did, wouldn’t others arise in its place? Where is peace, and what can we do to hasten it when few good deeds go unpunished?
The questions roiled in me the following day and I slept fitfully that night. At 5:30 a.m., I heard my cell phone go off. Who the hell could be calling? Someone from the mainland who didn’t realize how early it is in Hawaii?
It was my niece, Summer, in Honolulu. “There’s a tsunami coming,” she said.
She explained there’d been an earthquake in Chile and a tsunami was expected to hit the Hawaiian islands at 11.
What! Half asleep, I couldn’t make sense of this. Suicide bombs, tsunamis…
She told me to pack my things and come to my sister’s house that was on high ground in the middle of the island. “Come fast,” she said. “The warning sirens will go off at six and then there’ll be gridlock on the roads.”
I saw images of the Tsunami that leveled towns and killed masses in Thailand and India in 2004.
But I hesitated. I was staying on the 18th floor in a condo overlooking the beach, and I’d been told that I’d be safe on that high floor. I had a unique chance to watch this force of nature first hand.
But I was alone and if I stayed, I might not be able to leave for days. Better to make a run for my sister’s.
I jumped into gear and sped through the room, shoveling up my things and dumping them pell mell into a suitcase. I also grabbed my portable piano — we could make music while Rome burned.
I pulled out of the building just as the sirens started wailing and people on the streets began running in all directions. I drove to my sister’s in ten minutes flat — faster than anyone had done before. I joined my niece, her husband, baby, dog and cockatoo in the living room, and heard that four other friends and family members were on their way, prepared to stay for several days. But there was almost no food in the house!
My brother-in-law, Gary, had gone to fill his car with gas, but the station was crammed with cars “trying to enter from all directions,” he wrote later in an email to friends. After waiting for an hour to fill the tank, he drove to the nearest supermarket, which was under siege. Cars were parked three deep in the lot, there were no shopping carts and the lines to check out ran from the cashiers’ stands clear down the grocery aisles.
The first things to disappear from the store were water, ice, batteries, and, this being Hawaii, spam. Cardboard signs said “only 2 cans per customer.” The TV and radio announcers had been telling everyone to have enough food and water on hand for 5-7 days! Power would probably go out, so people should get non-perishable goods. That means spam, bruddah!
Summer said that when she and her husband had roared away from their home near the ocean in a local Hawaiian neighborhood, people were shooting off fireworks! Many locals later set up tents in a park near my sister’s home, where there were swings for the kids and a basketball court for the dudes. “Tsunami party!”
Gary finally made it home with a sack of potatoes, canned goods, bread and pasta, since he’d spent much of his time waiting in the pasta aisle. “It’s funny what people think they need,” he said, unpacking his stash. He himself had bought a jar of special pickles which he’d been searching for for weeks. “The smaller people tended to get smaller things, like mini muffins and crackers,” he said. He’s a large guy and his prize purchase was a large container of fresh-baked sweet rolls and Danish pastries, which another shopper had ditched just before checking out. Gary opened them in his kitchen and in minutes they were gone.
We settled down in front of the large screen TV to wait for the wall of water — 12 feet high in some places, the announcer said. It was supposed to hit Hilo harbor first, just after 11, then “wrap itself around all the islands.” No coast would be spared.
This is NOT a surfable wave,” the announcer kept warning. But we heard later that two crazies had gone out in the ocean by Waikiki.
The TV camera was fixed on Hilo harbor, which was now deserted. The image on the screen never changed. It was like watching an Andy Warhol movie where nothing happens and no one moves. Eleven a.m. came and went, then 11:30. Where in hell was the giant wave?
We saw some strong currents flow into the harbor and out again, in and out, for several cycles. This was “unusual behavior” for the ocean, we were told. But it was no tsunami.
We were relieved, of course — the tsunami might have destroyed Summer’s home and many others — but slightly disappointed, and emotionally exhausted.
What can we learn from all this? It was certainly better to be prepared for a tidal wave that fizzled than to be struck unawares as the Thai were in 2004, and the Indian doctors were last week. I look forward to your comments.